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THE FIRE NEXT TIME

Back in 1898, when the cornerstone of the Chipman-Petersen building in Tempe was laid, the national battle cry was "Remember the Maine!," referring to the U.S. battleship that blew up in the Havana harbor. In fact, the cornerstone was laid the same day the United States went to war against Spain.

Today the rallying cry from local fire officials may be "Remember the Scottsdale deli!" For it seems the December 26 fire in Tempe that destroyed the historic building housing Stan's Deli and a nightclub was strikingly similar to another Stan's Deli blaze that charred a slice of downtown Scottsdale history five years ago.

Investigators say the Tempe fire, at 415 South Mill, was caused by grease in the deli kitchen. Stan's employees removed the grease catchers over the hood that prevent oily build-up in the vent and act as fire barriers. If the barriers had been in place, the fire probably would not have occurred, officials say.

Rural/Metro fire officials had the same beef about the earlier fire. On January 31, 1986, Stan's Deli in Old Town Scottsdale likewise went up in smoke. A grease fire on the grill raged through the vent hood and spread to the upstairs portion of the building. In that blaze, the grease-catching system had also been disengaged, says Rural/ Metro chief Tom Knapp. Similarly, the building was destroyed, causing $1 million in damages and leaving an empty space in Scottsdale history.

Keith Stone, owner of Stan's Deli in Tempe, says making a connection between the two fires isn't right. However, Stone says he doesn't know whether the grease catchers had been disconnected at the Tempe deli.

He claims that his employees followed their regular check lists and store procedures on the night of the Tempe fire.

As for the Scottsdale fire, Stone says his father, Stan, had sold the deli and no longer owned it when that store was destroyed. His father did have an interest, Stone concedes, since he was owed $50,000 from the new owner at the time it burned.

The Scottsdale fire was ruled an accident, says Rural/Metro's Knapp. And the Tempe fire also has been ruled accidental, says Russ Wollam of the Tempe Fire Department. Wollam says the grease catchers were not in place while deli workers were grilling the day of last month's fire. Investigators are concentrating on the grease vent. They believe an oily build-up ignited before the deli closed at 10 p.m., and the embers smoldered for two hours before breaking into flames between the first and second floors. The grease vent was the only area in the deli that was not protected by sprinklers, says Wollam. The fire traveled up the vent and through the crawlspaces below Club UM, where more than 300 people were drinking and dancing.

Phoenix fire investigator Bobby Reese points out that grease fires are the most dangerous and frequent infernos at restaurants.

"It was hotter than our Cajun chicken-breast sandwich," Stone says jokingly. "That's for sure."

By the time the fire ended, it was no joke. The only thing the deli king had left was some salami cinders. He figures he's lost $400,000 in burned buns, lost corned-beef sales and the like. The total loss for the building is now more than $1 million.

Stone says he plans to reopen his business next August after a new building is erected at the same location. Larry Cutler, the building owner, says he will rebuild the landmark from the ground up, using salvaged ornamentation from the old building's facade.

One thing Stone didn't have to salvage was his sense of humor. He says the burning question is not when the deli will reopen, but where Phoenix Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill will eat his next lunch.

The deli was a popular chow place for Cardinals football players and local celebrities as well. Not surprisingly, Stone had named sandwiches after some of his pigskin stars--like the "Roy `Jet Stream' Green" sandwich, a favored delight of the Cardinals wide receiver.

The fire, however, may be the inspiration for a new celebrity hero: "We've got the hottest pastrami sandwich in town," Stone muses. "I think we'll have a contest to name a sandwich after the fire."

"It was hotter than our Cajun chicken-breast sandwich.

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J. W. Casserly